Our cultural life: a diminishing priority

Norbert Bilbeny
Professor of Moral Philosophy, University of Barcelona

Paper read in the International Bar Association annual meeting, Barcelona, September 1999. Spanish translation in "La Vanguardia" (Barcelona), October 29, 1999.

Fifteen years ago I won a litterary prize. The day after the event, the publisher of the book, an old and wise man, told me the following words in a corner of his desk, bright and confortable. “You know, Mr. Bilbeny -–he told me--, I have collected thousands of excellent books in my house along my life. I am proud of this. But no one of my sons comes close to the library at home. It is a pity! Definitely they do not like reading, in spite of have being well-schooled boys. They prefer to watch television and video-tapes. So do not get too much enthusiastic about your new book. I am sorry, but you the authors it will come soon a day in which you will find no reader for your books.”

Nowadays the sons of my former publisher are fifty years old. They have children too, those of the Internet generation. I suppose they do not like reading either, such as their parents did. Probably one could see these publisher's grandsons always connected to the network or making use of any CD-rom for study or entertainment. Observe, however, that there is an important difference, in relation to reading books, between these new computer habits and those of  spend our leisure time watching TV and tapes, as usual in the seventies or even in the eighties. Now the user could either remain seated all the time before his computer or eventually trying to consult a printed encyclopedia as well as reading a book stressed by the computer program itself. Thus, electronic technology has become in fact both a thick wall and an open window to the traditional world of books. To put in another words, computers could still represent a new continuation of the habit of reading instead of its ultimate death.

Of course this is only one possibility. Quite to the contrary, working and playing with CD-roms and the Net can push some other people to a full ignorance of books. It depends on our choice and our skills as well. Even so, it is well known for the present that the main tendency among the users is to avoid any other sources of information and diversion than those shining in the electronic screens. That being the case, nobody can be optimistic concerning the time to come for our culture of books. If not quite pessimistic, from the reasons I told before, we are meanwhile forced to be skeptical at least. In this sense, let me now express some reflections in short about the future of books, reading and readers.

First of all, a book is a material object. Lots of these objects suddenly disappeared when the library of Alexandria in Egypt burned down two thousands years ago. It was a cultural disaster. However, information stored up by CD-roms and  the networks entails a danger of dissolution too. A book can survive five hundred years at least since good physical conditions are given for it. But this is not the case for all the computer materials existing now. For example, nobody could say today if our CD-rom fabrics will subsist further than two decades more. In fact, no digital information is now free of a similar risk. So to speak, the universal virtual library has no bigger material guarantees than the classical one. The disaster could happen again.

Moreover, the oncoming virtual library has also large problems in the logistic domain. Let us check. First, there are still big difficulties in order to select the hardware and software systems for a long term data storage. Thus, the digital library is slow, expensive, even technically controversial. Second, such as library has at present any standard international criteria for introducing items within and keep them in a scientific order. Countries and institutions disagree on this point too. Last but not least, who should have the responsability on the final library control? Who could participate in the new Alexandria?    

I am equally skeptical about reading. The existence of books depends on the custom of reading, in the same way as a vigorous reading relies on the customary contact with books. As a matter of fact, specially young people and little by little scholars are replacing the use of books by that of Internet and other electronic sources. To read a book is more and more inusual among them. Faced with any matter, their first question usually is: “Where could we find this in Internet?” That means a shift in our patterns of education. The problem is not Internet itself, even not to navigate in the Net instead of consulting books in search of information. In my opinion the metamorphose is to forget the habit of reading books, which is particularly educative due to its intimate and intellectual features.

Reading is in the end a kind of activity, neglected by our modern technological culture the same as many other practices which are overlooked too. For instance, self-discipline, reflection, conversation, shared playing, social gathering and, permit me to tell you, courtesy. Reading is specially inconvenient for it is an activity which requires calm, concentration, and continuity in our task. Just a personal effort completely in contradiction with our new cultural customs. Now we only appreciate cultural practices in competence with either entertainment or immediate success. In spite of everything this is already the case of listenning opera, seeing classical theater, visiting art museums, and also for a lot of our cultural navigations through Internet. We expect spectacle. Reading never brings that to us. It is a declining practice. 

As a result, readers theirselves are in disappearence. To be a reader is to be in touch with books and to get involved in reading. Hence, it is a sort of identity. However, as books and reading go down, readers should diminish too. Our cultural life will not be the same, for an usual distinctive identity is lacking now. This is not the only cultural identity at stake. Something similar could be said with regard to the structuring of self-identity and the building of intimacy. Doubtless, we are going across a period of radical social changes, into which all kind of personal identity becomes more and more difficult, as much to preserve as to replace. Difficulties for embracing a reader's identity are also involved in such a general inabilility for a reflexively organized life-planning in our stressed times. Although it has been characteristic of every revolutionary cultural epoch, the fact is now more obvious and disturbing than ever.

We have to assume that the modern western culture has taken a fundamental turn in the last decades. Starting on the eighties, the so-called “culture of Modernity” has been increasingly displaced by our culture of Globalization, that of the information networks. In other words, the classic industrial culture has finally become the “informational” one. The former was modelled on the mechanical technology, national market, state sovereignity, and specially on the outcomes of the printing press and the earlier mass media. The latter is being shaped by the digital technology, the global market, a powerless state sovereignity, and obviously by Internet and multimedia. All of them are interconnected processes which encompass some basic consequences in our cultural life. Let me point the biggest. First of all, we can now describe the fact of an expanding virtuality as well as a growing instability in our social habits and beliefs. Secondly, we are faced with the phenomenon of a massive individualization in labor, leisure and general training. In conjunction with all that we can then observe a diminishing priority of school as a central public institution.

That said, it was characteristic of the classic industrial culture a divergence between the “culture of masses” and that of elites, the “selected” one. This divorce is still remaining in our informational age, but going with a very new face too. It seems to me that such an inner frontier in culture is already not depending on our social opportunities and the academic success. By contrast, it would be related now to our primary cultural background and the individual demands. To put in another way, disposal of power and knowledge could not be today the main reasons for the cultural gap contrasting the elite and the mass, but identity and the lifestyle much better. I refer to that frontier which exists now between an illiterate informational culture, on one hand,  and a literate informational culture, on the other hand.

A “literate” culture is not the same than a literary or intellectual one. Its basic pattern is literacy, not literature. Nevertheless, we must accept literacy into a full sense. First, we mean the ability to read and write. Second, the capacity to use language proficiently, it is to say, to become a well-written and a well-spoken person. And third, literacy is the faculty concerned with the so-called “more humane letters”, from the latin literae humaniores, then that kind of letters which embrace the knowledge of Language, History and Thought, just the content for becoming a well-read person in the end. According to this, literacy has been historically the framework of education and learning in all civilizations. In a general way, in the Western culture at least, the “learned and educated” people are relied on knowledge, of course, but also on speaking out and well arguing, opinion and critic taste, conversation and reflection too. In a word, a learned and educated person, the literate one, is such a kind of person who is furnished with letters and their outcomes in manners, behavior and polish communication.

Instead of this, I think that a sort of illiterate informational culture is now settling around. In the new situation, an illiterate person is not necessarily an unlettered one. Now one can be a very informed person and illiterate at the same time. So this is one of the chief paradoxes in our network age. Inside the new culture we can see an increasing, already a typical feature, which is literacy as an ability to read and write only, just for an elementary understanding. Accordingly, a lack of learning and education in their integrated sense is the main consequence of such a reduced margin for literacy. Then no wonder if we are now providing young people who are lettered but not literate, schooled but not learned, even well informed, though not educated people. In other words, to be someone cultured and illiterate does not seem to be any hard contradiction today. Literacy is in trouble. Meanwhile, we are nearly in front of a new kind of illiteracy, so that “functional” illiteracy, which makes a person able to read and write, but not to understand any short conceptual paragraph, nor to sustain any polished conversation. Then, it would be now two kinds of cultured people, those literate, shaped into a full literacy, and those illiterate, ignoring the most of reading and writing.

Globalization exhibits contradictions too. Externally, the global world is not yet a world-wide one. There is the North and the South, and their opposite situations. Even so, watching inside the global world there is another main divorce, that existing into our brain. On one side, we see the informational brain closely following the successful race for economy and technology. On the other side, we notice how that operational intelligence is growing up and the spiritual mind is clearly going back. Despite the commonplace, the brain for values and humanities is really getting small through our informational culture. Then the divergence between a literate culture and an illiterate one, that I told before, could be a consequence of such a mental divorce.

In the same way, some other main paradoxes would be now attached to the Western cultural life. For instance, we live more and more in a world of images, but it does not mean yet an increasing imagination. Could a lot of images betray imagination? We also live in a world of information, though it is not always a domain of true communication. Likewise, welfare is not exactly a happy way of life, success often excludes happiness, rationality ignores reasonability, initiative dislikes effort, originality avoids creation, diversion kills curiosity, and pleasure forgets enjoyment. Everything must be tried, felt, accomplished, before it is too late or there is no tomorrow, so everybody is today in a hurry. This strange new celebration of life early spreads in the air the last surrounding paradox. The fact is that we are living now within a sphere of experiences without experience, or, what is the same, in a world of time without time, a timeless time.                                                      

This is not the ideal world for learning and education. Our diminishing culture, which is in my opinion that of an increasing illiterate informational culture, is perhaps a consequence of such a lack of time and the floating experience in our way of life. Regardless, why does a culture need a truthful literacy? Why a living culture wants readers, reading, and books at the last? I have to reply making some definition on what does it mean cultural life. In a general way, culture is a set of practices and the interpretations with regard to them. A culture without interpretation is a dying one. Interpretation basically entails two kinds of activities in the mind. The one is the symbolic identification of the purpose of our actions and practices as a whole. The other is the perception of our world, and of ourselves as well. Moreover, the values and institutions which we know are based on the former activity, as long as the cultural identity is founded on the latter, in such a particular display that values usually are supplying the matter for “meaning” in every culture, and identities commonly organize in there our sense of “experience”.

Both interpreting activities constitute and perfom, in a word, our cultural life. Consequently, as there is no interpretation in a culture, meaning collapses and experience is getting blind. So the cultural life becomes smaller and dies. Meanwhile, there are some who identify the cultural life with the celebration of our cultural heritage, and some other who associate it with the ongoing cultural ideals. Of course, now there are many more who confuse the cultural life narrowly with the cultural consumption. Instead, further than all these ideas, the cultural life is a mixing form of experience and meaning in the everyday life. That is to say, the cultural life is our living culture, neither material nor metaphysical at all. In short, such a culture is a kind of life.

For these reasons, I think that the modern cultural life has been moving around the reality of books, at least in the greater part of cultured nations from the 16th century onward. In the last centuries, experience and meaning, both at the core of cultural life, have been specially trained up by literacy, and literacy itself is greatly indebted to the culture of books. So we can not imagine the modern Western culture without the contribution of books. Remind, for example, the importance of the Galileo's Dialogues for science, Luther's Bible for religion, Machiavelli's Prince for politics, Smith's Wealth of Nations for economy, as well as the significance of the ancient travel books for the overseas trade, by the side of the former grammar textbooks preparing the way for the new national statehood in Europe. In addition to this, we can not visualize any modern flourishing culture without the development of judgment and one's critical abilities. Then, books would not only be tools for storing and transmitting information, but also essential means for literacy and the broad-minded cultural life anywhere in the modern age. Owing to that, a book is a mean and also an aim in itself.

That said, Internet has just become an instrument for knowledge as good as the book. By and large, the network is now working much more than printing press among students and scholars of the world. Hence, in spite of its long term technical uncertainties, there are today more and more experts who think that Internet should be in fact much better than printed books and magazines in order to store and transmit information, whatever it may be. No printed mean is, nor would be, so quick, feasible and interactive than Internet really is. However, the informative network is only a mean, not an end, as books were and still they are. Internet is not yet linked to the prospect of an achieved literacy, which we still reserve to the books and probably in the future we will do too. The value of a book for an entire and collected literacy has no substitute for the moment, on account of which I say that books are both “means” and “ends”: the former in support of information, as Internet also do, and the latter for education, still a privilege of books.

So in my opinion Internet should not be discussed nor censured as a tool concerning information, despite its advantages over books, but as an instrument with no attached prospect for education at present, that is for a real literacy at least. Instead of this, the new informational culture makes human knowledge and manners fragmented and floating, like small consumer goods for a more and more selfish, transitory convenience. The Net and the Self: why anything else? Thus, as we may assume literacy at the core of a modern living culture, so our cultural life is now a diminishing priority, just the other way of a growing one. The point is that contemporary Western culture is not detracting from information, but from those capacities which get knowledge ready for a bit more of wisdom, liberty and personal taste in our lives. That is what I call to fulfil literacy in the integrated, real sense.

In the self-centered Western world, the enemy of culture is not yet poverty nor injustice. It is already culture itself, as doctor Freud predicted. The informational culture should react against its paradoxical results, or, worse than these, its declining demands, those which I have remind in my speech. Moreover, it could not be any new “battle for ideas” involved in such-and-such a response, in view of the fact that the recognition of culture, even of the very literate one, it is widely welcoming far and near in our world. Who dares to disapprove culture? By way of contrast, a powerful reply must basically pay attention to the domain of attitudes, much better than that of discourse and the voiceful believes.

A living culture lives in fact into the learning process and depends on the transmission of cultural patterns. That is why practical commitment to literacy, not merely accepting it in words, must be also taken in account for education and the recovering cultural life. 

Among his books: La revolución en la Ética. Hábitos y creencias en la sociedad digital (Anagrama: Barcelona, 1997), Democracia para la Diversidad  (Ariel: Barcelona, 1999).

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